The Two Faces Of Vietnam

25 January 2012
Read Time: 2.2 mins

Simon Byrne from Flight Centre Online visits the cultural and historical wonderland of Vietnam. Simon compares the motorbike chaos of Ho Chi Minh City with the laid-back oasis of Phu Quoc Island.

 The Phu Quoc Island sunset

Two weeks is far from long enough to truly experience a country as diverse and culturally rich as Vietnam. In 16 days we visited six destinations, giving us barely enough time to scratch the surface of each one. The best thing about this intriguing country was how vastly different each destination was from the last. Since a recap of all six places would fill a short novel, here's my pick of the two most different Vietnamese destinations.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Our trip began in Vietnam's biggest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City, affectionately known by its former name of Saigon amongst locals. It took just minutes in Saigon to understand the meaning behind its global nickname, "Motorbike City". It is estimated there are more than three million scooters on the road, crammed into a geographical area roughly the size of Brisbane. This makes crossing the road a daunting task at first, but just watch how a local does it and you'll be fine. We stayed at a very nice, modern hotel called New World Saigon, on the Executive Floor where the service was outstanding. The hotel is also home to one of the best buffets I've ever experienced.

The highlight of our stay in Saigon was a half-day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels, a fascinating network of underground passages used by the Viet Cong during the war. You're given the opportunity to crawl through a very dark and narrow tunnel for 100 metres, which was a great experience but definitely not for the claustrophobic. There's also a shooting range where you can go nuts on an automatic firearm if that's your thing (which it was).

Visiting the Ben Thanh Markets at least twice is inevitable on any Saigon visit. These were the best markets we came across in Vietnam with everything you can think of on offer. As at any markets in Vietnam, don't be afraid to start your haggling at around a third of the asking price. We also did a Mekong Delta boat tour from Saigon, which was a nice way to see a few of the islands; although some of the activities on the islands were quite touristy and robotic.

Phu Quoc Island
In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City is the peaceful paradise of Phu Quoc Island, near Vietnam's southern tip.  Here we stayed at La Veranda, a lovely beachside resort with beautiful architecture and accommodation but unfortunately quite average service. Being on the western side of the island, La Veranda was perfect for experiencing the famous Phu Quoc sunset, cold beer in hand of course.

The best way to get around the island is by scooter, as the traffic is minimal compared to the cities. There's a big national park full of lush vegetation and wildlife, and numerous secluded beaches to discover. Some areas are not accessible all the time so be sure to seek advice from a local before setting off. We encountered a few precarious bits of road that were either layered with six inches of mud or dotted with giant potholes, but managed to stay upright and unscathed (just). Providing you don't hurt yourself or your bike, the dodgy roads only add to the fun of it all.

After dark, the recommended itinerary is simple: Pay a visit to the night markets for Vietnam's freshest seafood and plenty of colourful stalls, then head to German B for the island's best cocktails. On another night, try the exceptional tapas at Mondo (not exactly an authentic Vietnamese experience but what the heck).

After two or three weeks of intense sightseeing on the mainland, relaxing on Phu Quoc Island for a few days is the perfect way to end your Vietnamese holiday.

Simon Byrne

Simon Byrne is a travel writer with a passion for exploring the unknown. From Piranha fishing in the waterways of Bolivia to exploring ancient tombs in Cambodia, Simon's travels continue to take him to weird and wonderful places, uncovering unique experiences and fascinating local people.